A Portrait of the Neighbors

rowhomes

TOWNHOUSE | Dan J. Fiore.

Hot Metal Bridge.

⇒This story, “Townhouse” by Dan J. Fiore, was a pleasure to read. This story, as the name implies, takes place in a townhouse, which is an interestingly symbolic environment for the narrative and its subject matter (consider the structure of a row of townhouses, their architectural symmetry).

The narrator describes the lives of his next-door neighbors. The story is a portrait, a sort of compare-and-contrast in which the narrator juxtaposes their relationship and lives with his and his spouse’s own, there on the other side of the wall. The story has a very musical structure, bearing a conceptual refrain focused on similarities and differences. Thus we read phrases like,

They’re a younger couple like us…

and

They have the same number of rooms as us. They have the same kitchen layout. The same exact back patio.

The style and structure are both beautifully rhythmic and monotonous like an inventory; it’s a soothing monotony that sets the reader up for one or two sharp left turns. The inventory approach works well.

Staying away from any spoilers, I want to talk about the strategy driving this fascinating piece, a strategy that essentially subverts or deconstructs the story’s ostensible premise. I love when stories do this.

Consider: if you were to read the story’s beginning, in which the narrator describes his neighbor’s home, their habits, the food they order in, the fights they have, the jobs they go off to, the conversations they have on the other side of the wall–the reader will get the conception that this author is saying, Here is a portrait of the narrator’s neighbors. 

Straightforward, right?

In fact, the real energy of this piece comes from the portrayal of the narrator himself. It’s a really cool recontextualization that allows us to see the narrator and his struggles in a very different light. Subject and object are turned on their heads, raising the timeless question of literary ontology,

Whom is a story really about? the story’s hero or the storyteller?

Who is the star of Great Gatsby, then? Gatsby, or the narrator Nick Carraway?

This question is a very chicken-and-egg sort or paradox. Ultimately, this little literary koan seems to focus us mostly on the question of identity, whether it’s determined by some innate condition or is defined by opposition to its environment and the identities of others. This is something to think about when we write and develop characters (i.e., instead of asking, What makes this character? ask, What makes this character different from other characters?).

Finally, a word about voyeurism, a central theme here, from which springs the subject/object confusion I alluded to above. What’s cool about voyeurism, what makes this dynamic so effective in a short story, is its inherent sense of conflict, of want. Looking/spying is a very telling clue to the interior workings of the voyeur, and it shows us a lot about what is missing or perceived as missing from the life of the watcher. Interesting that voyeurism is said to give a person a god-like sense of power; in reality, and for a character like our narrator, the answer may be just the opposite.

Read the story @ Hot Metal Bridge!

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